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Why Naveen Patnaik has not answered Jena’s questions

by Sandeep Sahu

When the Naveen Patnaik government, currently being probed by the Justice MB Shah Commission for the mining scam in the state, suddenly decided to get tough last week and imposed a fine of Rs 57,904 crore on 27 mining lessees in the iron ore rich Keonjhar district for excess extraction during the period from 2001-02 to 2009-10, it raised a few eyebrows.

After all, the BJD government had done precious little to punish the guilty even after the scam hit the headlines other than instituting an inquiry by the state vigilance department which, by its very nature, is simply not equipped to investigate the intricate web that goes by the name ‘mining mafia’.

But as soon as it became evident that the notice served on the mining companies would not stand the scrutiny of court, a consensus emerged that the state government move had been prompted more by a desire to be seen as acting tough by the Commission team that is currently in the state than any real intention of recovering the whopping amount from the violating companies.

But the minders of the Naveen Patnaik government had obviously not factored the wily Srikant Jena, Union minister of State for Statistics and Programme Implementation, who pounced on the Rs 58,000 crore fine as an ‘admission of guilt’ and promptly demanded Naveen Patnaik’s resignation.

Naveen Patnaik. PTI

At a press conference on Monday evening, Jena claimed that the Karnataka and Goa mining scams are ‘peanuts’ compared to the size of the Odisha scam and even went on to put a figure to it: Rs 4 lakh crore. “A scam of such gigantic proportions — and that too for 10 long years — could not have taken place without the complicity of the Chief Minister. Therefore, he must go,” said the man who is widely believed to be the man who scuttled the chances of Biju Patnaik, Naveen’s father, of becoming Prime Minister in 1996.

Unfortunately for Jena though, the Union Mines ministry’s position has been at variance with his. After the state government’s notice slapping a recovery notice of Rs 57,904 crores (over Rs 32,000 crore on the Tatas alone), the Union Mines ministry has sent an advisory to the state saying this would not stand in court, reiterating what the state government perhaps knew all along.

In a way, thus, the BJD government in Odisha and the UPA government are not exactly on different pages.

The key to understanding the motive behind the move to impose the fine is to know the difference between ‘excess mining’ and ‘illegal mining’. “Following the amendment to the Mineral Concession Rules in June this year, excess mining, meaning production beyond the permissible limit, within the leasehold is not illegal mining. There are remedies available in the law for such a violation. Mining becomes illegal only when it takes place outside the leasehold area,” explains BK Mohanty, a former Director of Geology and Mining in the Government of Odisha and an expert on mining affairs in the state.

“If excess mining has indeed taken place, then it is the state government which should be held responsible and not the companies because they must have issued transport permits (TPs) and charged royalties for the excess production,” Mohanty says.

This, in a way, gives substance to Jena’s charge that the whole idea behind issuing notices to companies for ‘excess mining’ — as opposed to ‘illegal mining’ — was to make sure that they escape unscathed without any criminal liability.

BJD’s response to Jena’s charges has been more along political lines than on the substantive points raised by him. BJD MP Pianaki Mishra called the figure of Rs 4 lakh crore a ‘figment of Jena’s rather fertile imagination’ while others dubbed his fulminations against Naveen an anguished outcry at the perceived role of the BJD supremo in denying a cabinet berth to him in the recent reshuffle and an exercise in furthering his (Jena’s) cause as the next PCC chief.

While the figure quoted by Jena is debatable, there is no question whatsoever that Naveen Patnaik has presided over the biggest ever loot of the state’s rich mineral resources in history. For nearly a decade after he took over as Chief Minister in 2000, mining companies were given a free rein to indulge in rapacious mining in complete contravention of all rules, laws and norms. Year after year, the government allowed miners to extract ore, principally iron ore, at will under ‘deemed extension’ of mining leases when the rules stipulate that if a renewal is not granted within a certain time period, it would be deemed to have been denied.

After years of being hailed as Mr Clean, Naveen now is in serious danger of being badly sullied by the mining scam, including the coal scam, in the state. He has more serious things to worry about than Jena’s call for his resignation. For one thing, the Shah Commission, currently on its third and presumably last visit to the state, looks like having unearthed tell-tale evidence of gross illegalities and irregularities in the iron ore mines of Keonjhar and Sundargarh.

For another, the High Court judgment on a petition seeking a CBI probe, reserved for an unprecedented 20 months now after completion of hearing, could come any time. There is also the petition filed by senior journalist and convener of Jana Sammilani Rabi Das and pending in the Supreme Court.

By the looks of it, the Naveen Patnaik government appears confident that it can take an indictment by the Shah Commission, even a strong one, in its stride. But it is a CBI inquiry that Naveen dreads most because there is no knowing where it could end up. In any case, he does not want to be in the shoes of the likes of Mulayam Singh and Mayawati and be arm-twisted by the UPA to toe its line on major issues. He has to maintain the facade of anti-Centrism, which has been a key factor in his continued electoral success in the state.